Remote Relief

Community,Technology February 28, 2013 8:28 pm

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“My name is Jean Wani my brother is working in unicef and I live in Carfour 11 Alentyerye I have 2 people that are still alive under  the building! Send Help!”

This text message, originally sent in Haitian Creole seven days after the January 12, 2010 earthquake, reported one of the many ensuing emergencies. With this note and thousands of others like it, disaster relief entered the Information Age—in a country where Internet penetration falls under 10 percent.

Once sent, the message traveled through a global network of emergency responders, many of whom had never set foot in Haiti. The response was cobbled together by a group of people from disparate organizations, largely online. One of them was Ushahidi, a Kenyan organization originally created in response to Kenya’s 2007 post-election crisis. The group’s open-source mapping technology allowed residents to crowdsource information about ongoing riots and emergency needs via SMS.

After the earthquake in Haiti, Ushahidi and others rapidly developed and deployed an SMS response system to report and monitor needs. The system would connect victims with volunteers abroad analyzing reports, translators among the Haitian diaspora, and ultimately crews on the ground who could locate them and provide aid.

Brian Herbert, a software developer for Ushahidi, worked on the earthquake response from his apartment in Athens, Georgia. “It kind of grew very organically,” he says. “There was no plan in the beginning for how it would work. So as we needed expertise in different areas, different organizations were willing to help out in different parts.”

Once deployed, Haitians could send critical messages to a 4636 shortcode. People across the earthquake-affected area needed only a mobile phone to call out for help, a crucial feature. While Haiti’s Internet infrastructure lags behind nearby countries like the Dominican Republic and Jamaica, cell phone ownership is common. The country of about 10 million people had an estimated 4.2 million mobile subscriptions last year.

remoterelief3Digicel, the country’s largest telco, had originally set up the 4636 shortcode to broadcast weather notices during hurricane seasons. The company’s network suffered damage in the quake but remained operational, and it donated the number for emergency response. Repurposed, 4636 became a two-way channel. Port-au-Prince radio stations informed listeners about the service and stressed that people include location information with 4636 texts. Eventually, some 45,000 messages poured in, which needed to be translated, categorized, and marked as actionable or not. Many were non-urgent or noise.

Most of those messages landed in Patrick Meier’s living room, which he dubbed the Haiti Situation Room. At the time, Meier was Ushahidi’s Director of Crisis Mapping and working on his PhD at the Tufts university Fletcher School in Boston. In the Situation Room, volunteers used social networks like Facebook and Twitter to find people who could translate Haitian Creole. More than a thousand members of the Haitian diaspora responded. Many had lived in Port-au-Prince and used their local knowledge of its geography to approximate messagers’ locations.

One translator, Carline Ferailleur-Dumoulin, grew up in Port-au-Prince and Miami and returned to Haiti for a few years in the late 90s. She now runs a professional translation company in Atlanta and translated emergency messages from her home after the quake.

“A lot of these messages were cries for help from people being stranded,” Ferailleur-Dumoulin wrote in an email, “and some others were reporting thefts taking place. Others were requesting food and shelter. Reading these messages and knowing they were coming from people back home was heart-wrenching. But I still had to basically be emotionless and focus on the task at hand.”

The Fletcher volunteers also used platforms like Open Street Map (a Wikipedia-style crowdsourced world map) to refine geolocations. The day before the earthquake, the OSM map of Port-au-Prince featured only a handful of major avenues. Google Maps wasn’t much better and couldn’t be edited.

“Port-au-Prince essentially didn’t exist on the [OSM] map,” says Herbert. “There was nothing there.” But after just two days, the map of the capital was an intricate web of thoroughfares, streets, and backroads. Volunteers had used satellite imagery to trace streets onto OSM. It remains the most detailed and accurate digital map of Port-au-Prince.

remoterelief2Ultimately, the coordination made its way back to Haiti. Herbert recalled a particular message sent about a young woman in labor. “One of the volunteers was able to take that and find down to the almost exact spot where they were,” Herbert says, “and she was able to get help.” The US Coast Guard reported that the latitude and longitude provided were accurate to five decimal points.

For her and many others, Ushahidi’s response made all the difference. Meier noted in a paper, “The United Nations took weeks to respond, while the technology community took hours. This is a classic case of technology and innovation leading regulation.” Craig Fugate, administrator of the US Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), praised the Ushahidi crisis map as “the most comprehensive and up-to-date map available to the humanitarian community”.

Yet the project had its hitches. In one instance, another organization used the shortcode to blast a notice to all subscribers. Residents responded to 4636 en masse, creating a spike in noise that taxed volunteers who could have been translating emergency texts.

Meier and others have since formalized their strategy into a Standby Task Force, a network of digital responders trained in  crowdsourcing and mapping. The initiative and its technologies will help ensure volunteers a continent away can contribute during future emergencies, as Herbert, Ferailleur-Dumoulin, and many others did for Haiti. Having since mapped crises in Libya and Syria and monitored South Sudan’s referendum, task force members say their impact is felt.

“I was motivated to volunteer on some of those assignments,” Ferailleur-Dumoulin says. “Mainly on a humanitarian level but also because this disaster had literally hit home, where my family members and friends were. And to me, this was the best way I could help out since I could not physically be at the scenes to lend a hand.”